A summary of Georges Poulet’s "A Phenomenology of Reading"
Georges Poulet has been identified as a member of the so-called Geneva School of critics, who have assimilated something of the Romantic tradition of Rousseau and the historicism of the nineteenth-century German philosopher, Wilhelm Dilthey. For these critics, literary criticism is itself literature, but it is not the solipsistic criticism of the impressionists. Many of these critics, taking much from the phenomenological tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, argue that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Poulet, in contrast, believes that a thought is also "simply a thought." He is a Cartesian dualist; he acknowledges a subjectivity that exits in itself. But it is possible to join one’s consciousness with the author’s as it is created in his works. The book is an object by which two subjects–the consciousness of the author and that of the reader–become one. The author reveals himself to us in us. In Phenomenology of Reading, Poulet examines a number of other critics in his tradition, and he posits the existence of some ineffable presence–some mental activity–that cannot be captured in the objectivity of the book itself but hovers above it or invades the reader.
At the same time, Poulet’s Cartesian dualism leads him to consider the critics’ consciousness in some way free of total identity with the author’s. The critic is not really writing analyses; he is writing a criticism that is itself literature in an attempt to convey his consciousness of his author’s consciousness. His work, in turn, will be more than its own objectivity when it also finds a reader and joins itself to that reader’s consciousness.
The tradition in which Poulet works is in direct opposition to the analytical, objectivist tradition of British and American criticism. Rather than regarding a work of art as a completed object with some autonomy from its author, Poulet considers it an act of the author, part of the process of the author’s consciousness. Here are some of the main tenets of his argument:
I. That all books are as dead objects until someone reads them.
II. Books are more than their objective reality: they are more than words on a page.
III. The reader becomes part of the inside of the book; the book becomes part of the inside of the reader.
IV. As the subjective experience of the book enlarges, so the objective experience of the book decreases.
V. The life inside the book gains its reality from the reader’s consciousness. The images, ideas, words lose their materiality; they exist as mental objects. "My thoughts are my whores" suggests that the author’s thoughts "sleep" with everyone else without ceasing to belong to their author.
VI. Ideas exist. They pass from one mind to another.
The process of reading suggests also an I who is thinking the thoughts, not just a passive receiver of them. "Whenever I read, I mentally pronounce an I, and yet the I which I pronounce is not myself. "Je est un autre," says Rimbaud helps to understand this phenomenon.
A book is not only a book. "When I am absorbed in reading, a second self takes over, a self which thinks and feels for me" (1211). One must let the individual who wrote it reveal himself to us in us.
A displacement of the reader by the work occurs. Author and reader come closer to a common consciousness.
VII. This identity of consciousness enables the work to have a kind of immortality. It is this response which criticism should aim for, not the objective non-involvement type so often written. "Words in this type of criticism have attained a veritable power of recreation; they are a sort of material entity, solid and three-dimensional. One must be careful to not irradicate the subject altogether by abstracting it totally. If the critic does this, "then criticism is no longer mimesis; it is the reduction of all literary forms to the same level of insignificance" (1218).
VIII. Thus criticism oscillates between two possibilities: a union without comprehension, and a comprehension without union.
One goes not from the work to the psychology of the author, but rather to "a certain power of organization, inherent in the work itself. . ." (1221). Through intuition the reader is able to comprehend the author’s consciousness at his most obscure. The reader is always haunted by the hint of transcendence. The moment of forgetfulness of objectivity, of self, leads to the apprehension of a subjectivity without objectivity.